Major Arizona Sports Teams and Events
The state of Arizona is home to four Big Four professional franchises, two Power Five college programs that are members of the Pac-12, one of the major tracks on the NASCAR circuit, the most popular event on the PGA Tour (Waste Management Open), and is home to one of the major college football bowls that are included in the College Football Playoff. The growth of sports in Arizona has mirrored the increase in the state’s population as well as the variety and expansion of the professional sports leagues.
Retirees and vacationers have brought their zeal for sports like hockey and football to the Grand Canyon State, enabling the Phoenix metropolitan area to go from just one Big Four franchise in 1987 to one of just 13 United States cities with representatives in all four of the major league sports. Since 1998, teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball call the Valley of the Sun home.
The region is also home to the Cactus League, in which 15 major league baseball franchises play their spring training games and the Turf Paradise race track, one of the premier horse racing venues in the country. Phoenix is also home to the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and the USL Championship’s Phoenix Rising Football Club (FC).
Major League Baseball: The Arizona Diamondbacks
The Arizona Diamondbacks started as an expansion team that began play in the National League during the 1998 season. Along with the Tampa Bay Rays, it became the last franchise added to the league that brought the total members to 30 teams. They play in the West Division of the National League and have one World Series title when the Diamondbacks defeated the New York Yankees four games to three in the 2001 Fall Classic.
Since the teams ‘ inception, the home of the Diamondbacks has been Chase Field, which was changed in 2005 from the original name of Bank One Ballpark, or “BOB,” following Chase Bank’s acquisition of Bank One. Chase Field has a retractable roof, allowing games to be comfortably played even in the heat of the desert summer when temperatures can reach close to 120 degrees.
In the most recently completed Major League Baseball season, the Diamondbacks finished last in the National League West with a 25-35 record in the Covid-19 induced truncated season. As of June 17th, the team is again bringing up the rear in their division with a record of 20-50, 24.5 games behind the San Francisco Giants.
Arizona recently approved sports betting, and the Diamondbacks have partnered with Caesars Entertainment to operate a sportsbook, restaurant, and broadcast facility in the plaza outside Chase Field. It is now one of the most popular locations to bet games live in the state.
National Football League: Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals, the longest continuously operating professional football team in the country, moved to Phoenix from St. Louis prior to the 1988 season and previously played in Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium. The team moved to their current home, the retractable roof State Farm Stadium in Glendale, in time for the 2006 season.
Since 2002, the team has played in the NFC West division, winning three division crowns and advancing to Super Bowl XLIII following the 2008 season, losing in the final seconds to the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-23. The standout player for the Cardinals since 2004 has been wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the franchise’s career leader in receiving yards, receptions, and touchdowns.
Since posting a record of 13-3 and losing to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals have failed to qualify for the playoffs. In 2019, they drafted quarterback Kyler Murray first overall in the NFL Draft after hiring former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury as their head coach.
The moves have yet to have resulted in a winning record on the field, but the Cardinals finished 8-8 in 2020, good for third place in the NFC West. In 2019, despite finishing just 5-10-1, Kyler Murray was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
National Basketball Association: Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns have the longest tenure of any of the Phoenix area Big Four franchises, beginning play in the NBA as an expansion team in the 1968-1969 season. They’ve played in the Phoenix Suns Arena, formerly known as America West Arena, since 1992, and despite efforts to renovate the facility, negotiations with the city of Phoenix have not yet resulted in any progress.
Just like two of their fellow Big Four Phoenix-based franchises, the Suns have yet to capture a title, but for the first time since losing to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals, they have hope of a championship in 2021. They were seeded second in the Western Conference after failing to make the playoffs for ten consecutive seasons and lead the Los Angeles Clippers in the conference finals, with the winner headed to the NBA Finals.
The combination of head coach Monty Williams and veteran point guard Chris Paul has given the team and city hope that the Suns can return to long-term competitiveness, especially after defeating the defending NBA champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. In addition, the Suns reached an agreement earlier this year for FanDuel to become their official sportsbook and daily fantasy partner.
National Hockey League: Phoenix Coyotes
In 1996, the former Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix, were renamed the Phoenix Coyotes, and played at the old America West Arena (renamed several times since), which they shared with the NBA Phoenix Suns but was not originally intended for use by a hockey team. In 2003, they moved to the Gila River Arena in Glendale and changed their name to the Arizona Coyotes in 2014.
The franchise has had minimal success, winning just a single division championship since moving from Winnipeg and never advancing to a conference final. In addition, the Coyotes have had numerous ownership changes as well as a tumultuous relationship with Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, who, as Head of Hockey Operations, named himself head coach in 2005, a role he held until stepping down in 2009.
The Coyotes have also been plagued by financial problems, stemming partially from a bad lease at the America West Arena, something they are still struggling to recover from nearly 20 years later. In the last five years, the Coyotes have made just one appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, losing to the Colorado Avalanche four games to one in the first round following the 2019-2020 season.
College Athletics: University of Arizona
The University of Arizona, located in Tucson with an enrollment of just under 44,000 students, has been a member of what is now the Pac-12 Conference since 1978 when it expanded from eight to ten member schools. Since 1976, the school has won seven men’s and 15 women’s national championships, most notably four in baseball and eight in softball as well the 1997 NCAA Championship in men’s basketball, and most recently the NCAA Women’s Golf title in 2018.
As for the high-profile sport of football, the Wildcats haven’t won a conference title since 1993, when they went 10-2 overall and defeated Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. In addition, they’ve gone 6-5 in bowl games in the same time frame with only two seasons with at least 10 wins.
The baseball team, which plays at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, has been to the College World Series 18 times overall and three times in the past decade, including 2021. They’ve also won four Pac-12 conference titles, the most recently in 2021.
Arizona college basketball has been a model of consistency, with 35 NCAA tournament appearances, most recently in 2018, 19 times in the Sweet Sixteen, 11 Elite Eight appearances, and four times in the Final Four. They have also won the Pac-12 basketball tournament seven times.
College Athletics: Arizona State University
Arizona State University is located in Tempe and has the largest enrollment in the Pac-12 Conference, of almost 72,000. The Sun Devils joined the conference at the same time as their rival University of Arizona. They have won 22 NCAA national championships, including five in baseball, with the last one coming in 1981.
They appeared in the College World Series 22 times, and former players who played in Major League Baseball include Barry Bonds, Rick Monday, Sal Bando, Bob Horner, Dustin Pedroia, and Reggie Jackson. Baseball is by far the most successful of the top college sports for Arizona State, although the golf program has produced six-time major champion Phil Mickelson as well as recent U.S. Open winner Jon Rahm.
Arizona State’s success in football has been somewhat limited since joining the Pac-12, with only three conference titles after winning seven of the last nine WAC championships under Frank Kush before they left the league in 1978, including the national championship in 1970. They’re hoping for somewhat of a resurgence under former NFL and current head coach Herm Edwards, who has gone 17-13 in three seasons, including bowl game appearances following the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
PGA Tour: Waste Management Open
The Waste Management Phoenix Open is one of the longest-running events on the PGA Tour, and judging from attendance figures, it is also the most popular. The tournament has been played since 1939 but was also played from 1932 to 1935.
It’s been played at the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale since 1987 after bouncing around the Phoenix area for much of its history. The Waste Management Phoenix Open is operated by the Thunderbirds, a civic and charitable organization that helps the tournament generate millions of dollars for charities in the Phoenix area.
Although the tournament organizers no longer release attendance figures, the Waste Management Phoenix Open previously set both daily and weekly PGA Tour records of 201,003 and 618,365 in 2016. The course is highlighted by the par-three 16th hole that’s surrounded by a 20,000 seat grandstand.
The tournament is usually held on Super Bowl weekend and has been scheduled for a Saturday finish when the game is played in the Phoenix area. Multiple winners include major champions Brooks Koepka, local favorite Phil Mickelson, Johnny Miller, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, and Byron Nelson, in addition to one-time victor Jack Nicklaus.
The Fiesta Bowl has been played in the Phoenix metropolitan area since its inception in 1971, initially taking place at Sun Devil Stadium at Arizona State University in Tempe. In 2007, the game was moved to State Farm Stadium in Glendale, also the home of the Arizona Cardinals.
Since 1992, the results of the Fiesta Bowl have had an impact on college football’s national championship, beginning with the Bowl Coalition, then the Bowl Alliance, followed by the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), and now the College Football Playoff. The event hosts a semifinal game every three years on a rotating basis with the other bowls involved in the playoff system.
The last College Football Playoff semifinal hosted by the Fiesta Bowl was in 2018 when eventual national champion Clemson defeated Ohio State 29-23 in front of 71,330 fans. The most recent Fiesta Bowl was held without fans in attendance due to Covie-19 on January 2nd, with 12th ranked Iowa State defeating 25th ranked Oregon by the score of 17-0.
The College Football Playoff committee recently released its intention to expand the playoff from four teams to 12, possibly within two years but more likely a couple of years following that when its television deal with ESPN expires. Given the successful involvement of the Fiesta Bowl since 1992, it’s certain to play a significant role in the future.
NASCAR: Phoenix Raceway
Phoenix Raceway is a one-mile race track that was built in Avondale, about 20 miles west of downtown Phoenix. The track has hosted at least one NASCAR race every year since 1988, beginning with a fall date near the end of the circuit’s annual schedule, and since 2005 has also had a spring race at the location.
Unlike many NASCAR venues, the Phoenix Raceway doesn’t have high banked turns, which tends to highlight the driver’s abilities as opposed to just raw speed. For last season and again in 2021, the track will host NASCAR’s championship weekend, with the layout far different than Homestead’s higher banked 1.5-mile configuration.
The track has also hosted races in a number of other circuits, including the IndyCar series. As a result of the increased attention by NASCAR, Phoenix Raceway is undergoing a number of renovations to improve the experience for fans.
In November, Chase Elliott won the NASCAR Cup Series with his victory. Martin Truex, Jr. was victorious in the most recent race on March 14th.
Sports Betting Wrap-Up
With the advent of legal sports betting in Arizona, there are a wide variety of professional sports that will be available on which to wager that takes place in the state. The Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks have already announced plans to have sportsbooks operating in their arena and stadium complexes, as well as a number of casinos that will open wagering locations.
There is little doubt that the Arizona Cardinals and Phoenix Coyotes won’t be following their lead, giving sports fans in the state plenty of opportunities to place legal bets on their favorite teams and events taking place close to where they reside and watch sports. Whether the Thunderbirds allow wagering at the Waste Management Phoenix Open is a story that will worth following over the coming months.
While the state legalized sports betting on April 15th, it will take several months to finalize the regulations and award licenses, although the state indicates they hope to have legal wagers accepted in time for football season. So it remains to be seen if the fortunes of sports bettors will be any better than that of their Big Four franchises, almost all of which have been struggling of late.